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After almost 18 years of active National Service (two-and-a-half years of full-time NS plus ten cycles of In-Camp Trainings), I finally received my precious MR (Mindef Reserve) certificate.
Even though the students successfully forced the authority to reverse their decision, dozens of them were injured and arrested in the riots. As the complete self-rule of the country became imminent, there was a need for Singapore to have its own military defence. The officers and men were later based at Ulu Pandan Camp, but it took six years before 1SIR reached its full battalion strength of over 800 men. During the merging with Malaysia and the Konfrontasi period against Indonesia (1963-1965), 1SIR was posted to Perak, Sabah and Johor for jungle trainings and defensive missions. When Singapore attained independence in 1965, there was an urgency for the newly born nation to have its own defence force. Finance Minister Dr Goh Keng Swee (1918-2010) was appointed as the first Minister for Defence to work on the proposal in building up a sizable voluntary force to back up the regulars.
At the beginning, Singapore’s military development and directions were not determined.
In the early days of Singapore’s independence, the military cooperation with Israel was never formally acknowledged, due to the sensitivity of a predominately Muslim region. The 900 selected personnel were officially enlisted on 17 July 1967, added to the newly-formed infantry battalions of 3SIR and 4SIR after weeks of basic military training (BMT). In the late sixties and early seventies, send-off dinners and ceremonies were regularly organised at the community centres to boost the morale and the commitment of the new national servicemen, whose loved ones would line up along the roads to witness their departures on the three-tonner trucks. With the successful establishment of the additional infantry battalions and the new SAF Training Institute, other facilities such as the School of Artillery and School of Signals soon followed. The national servicemen of the sixties and seventies, beside trainings, took part in many gotong royong (helping out in the communities) such as tree planting, rivers’ clean-up, debris removal in flood-affected areas and road repairs at kampongs. Before its split into Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Ministry of Home Affairs in 1970, it was the Ministry of Interior and Defence (MID) which took charge of SAF. Before the official inauguration of the centralised Basic Military Training Centre (BMTC) in 1996, the recruits were trained in two major camps at Nee Soon and Pulau Tekong. To do more than 200 pushups in a morning session of physical training was a norm in the nineties. Dressed in combat attire with SBO, helmet and rifle, this was one of the basic courses in BMT that a recruit must complete within 9 minutes. The Battle Inoculation Course (BIC) was an interesting course a recruit had to go through in his BMT. Many older Singaporeans would be familiar with the hand grenade training in BMT, influenced by the classic SBC drama The Army Series (????) in 1983, in which veteran actor Huang Wenyong played an acting role as a lieutenant who lost his life while saving a recruit during a hand grenade training.
The instructor must keep his calm at all time, but even the most experienced ones would be unnerved by three types of recruits, namely the blur sotongs, the gan cheong spiders and those with sweaty palms!
The eight-week BMT was rounded off with a six-day field camp and a 24km route march in FBO (Full Battle Order). In the 1970s, there were many small knolls at the training area between Woodlands and Mandai, such as Hill 180 and Hill 255, which were named according to their heights (in feet). Not all national servicemen had the chance to experience it, but for those who did, the oversea exercises at Brunei were unforgettable experiences, or nightmares.
Beside combat trainings and physical exercises, national servicemen had to learn to adapt to routine life in the army camps, sharing bunks with each other and working hand in hand to ensure the required disciplinary standards were met.
Unlike today, the past national servicemen had to do all the area cleanings themselves, taking turns to wash the toilets, empty the drains and clear the dry leaves on the carparks. The two-week confinement period during BMT was perhaps the most restricted period for the national servicemen. Life in the units was generally better, but new birds were likely to be tekan with constant stand-by-bed, turn-outs (in the middle of the night) and change parades in their first few weeks. On the first day when M16 (or SAF21 today or AR15 before the 1980s) was handed to a recruit, he was taught that he must treat the 3.3kg weapon like his wife. The bill, named the National Service Ordnance, was passed by the Legislative Council and was supposed to come into effect in 1954.


Thousands of local Indians left Singapore, while the Chinese middle school students organised aggressive protests.
The Chinese middle schools, in the later years, even became a breeding ground for pro-communist elements. In April 1955, Singapore was given its first Legislative Assembly Election, with David Marshall (1908-1995) served as the First Chief Minister of Singapore. On 12 March 1957, a total of 237 men born in Singapore was selected from an application pool of 1,420 to form the First Singapore Infantry Regiment (1SIR). The early roles of 1SIR was mainly to engage internal security and maintain civil order with the police. The experienced battalion later produced many commanders to train the new enlistees when NS started in 1967.
Its two existing battalions of regulars were clearly insufficient, but any expansion of the army would cost a lot of money and put a strain on the economy. However, when the British indicated their intention to reduce their forces in Malaysia and Singapore in 1966, the need for compulsory national conscription with reservist became the long term plan.
Several international case studies were conducted, and Switzerland was one of the considerations, based on the success of its economy and citizen army.
Subsequent batches of fresh enlistees soon followed, reporting at the community centres or the Central Manpower Base.
In the late sixties, SAF also introduced its first scholarship program to attract the brightest talents to join the military as their careers. Six contingents, including the Singapore Infantry Regiment and the People’s Defence Force, marched past the building of City Hall, saluting then-President Yusof bin Ishak. Many were also activated for major rescue operations, notably the Laju Crisis in 1974, the Spyros Disaster in 1978, the Sentosa Cable Car Accident in 1983 and collapse of Hotel New World in 1986.
The ministry was established in 1965 with only a small office at Empress Place as its headquarters. It was reunited with MINDEF at the Tanglin Barracks in 1972, after its buildings were left vacant by the departed British forces. A small number of other enlistees was recruited directly in units through the mono-intake system introduced since 1980.
Daily routine of morning exercises included jumping jack, burpees, star jumps, pushups, situps, half squats and others.
After the tekan, the body would ache so much that many could not lift their arms while changing shirts.
It was a simulation of a battlefield environment during wartime, and the trainees had to get past barbed wires by doing leopard crawling and back crawling with live rounds flying above them. Trainees had to be familiarised through repeated throwing practices with a dummy grenade before they could actually try the real thing.
Its thick and dense jungles made Singapore’s Mandai or Sungei Gedong look like playgrounds.
4 and carrying heavy weapons, the soldiers had to trek long distances over hilly areas filled with commando-trained mosquitoes, sand flies, armies of giant ants and, occasionally, some mean-looking centipedes. In those days without internet or handphones, the connection with the outside world was basically cut off. For the fitness part, a M16 (or the heavier dummy weapon) was often used to train the endurance and the strength of the arms.
But the excitement of firing live rounds and hitting the targets was often offset by the fear of punishment due to misfiring or other silly mistakes in the range.
There were good and bad memories, as well as absolute nightmares in the confinements, devilish trainings and tekan by sadistic instructors. There are always countless tales to tell; from outfields and trainings to supernatural stuffs. The new law required the local men of ages between 18 and 20 to be called up for trainings at the Singapore Military Force (SMF) or the Civil Defence Corps (CDC). When Lim Yew Hock took over the partial self-government a year later, his hardline approach against the communists persuaded the British to grant Singapore more autonomy.


Trainings of the new recruits were first carried out at Nee Soon Camp, which was still under the ownership of the British Army and was used to train their own forces. The university study fees and living expenses were offered in exchange for an eight-year bond with the armed forces.
Crowds of thousands cheered loudly as the troops continued their march to Chinatown and Tanjong Pagar.
It was then shifted to Pearl’s Hill Barracks in early 1966, sharing the premises with the Central Manpower Base (CMPB) and the Police Headquarters. This lasted 17 years until 1989, when MINDEF moved to its new headquarters at Bukit Gombak, while CMPB was relocated to Depot Road. Waking up at 5.30am, the recruits gathered at the parade square to do 5BX (5 Basic Exercises) in the darkness, followed by a short run before they could have their breakfasts. Standing behind a concrete barrier, the recruit had to release the safety pin before throwing the live grenade and witnessing its explosion six seconds later. The worst experience was not the eye-burning sensation caused by the tear gas but the sight and smell of those stains of tears, saliva and mucus on the used mask! In fact, it was just the beginning of a two-year (two-and-a-half year previously) National Service.
Many national servicemen could recall their exhausted days at the notorious Peng Kang Hill and Elephant Hill (at Pasir Laba) and Botak Hill (at Pulau Tekong). Part of it was flattened in the nineties due to the construction of the Seletar Expressway (SLE). As if the physical toil was not enough, there were also rumours that the jungles contained many restless souls of previous National Servicemen who got lost in the thick vegetation and never made it back home. The boots must be polished gilat gilat, and displayed neatly along with the shoes and slippers by the beds. At nights, the recruits queued up in long lines at the coin phones, while others tried to find pleasure listening to their walkman. During an outfield exercise, the weapon must be slung by the side at all times, even during sleeping.
In close combat trainings, a recruit also learned, in times of ammunition shortage, how to pierce the target with the bayonet fixed at the end of his M16, or hit the target with the rifle butt. Memories of NS may be nostalgic to some, but most, if not all, will not want to go through it again. A secret pact with Israel was reached, with Israeli advisors flew in to train the first batch of graduates from the Singapore Armed Forces Training Institute in June 1967.
Only one tenth of the 9,000 applicants was selected for full-time NS due to the limited training facilities. On 1st July 1969, Singapore also celebrated its first Armed Forces Day (SAF Day) to mark the armed forces’ loyalty and dedication to the nation. Nevertheless, the tough physical trainings ensured the national serviceman was kept at his best fighting-fit condition. Different batches of national servicemen, depending on their vocations, went to experience different types of training courses. The items in the cupboards should be placed in their orders, with the shelves kept dust-free. The remaining was posted to part-time national service at the People’s Defence Force (PDF), the Special Constabulary and the Vigilante Corps.
A 1,500-strong contingent of national servicemen and servicewomen was involved in the special day filled with parades and open houses. The difference between marksmen and bobo shooters became more obvious during the night shoot.



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